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Whitehead, Peter (1937- )

Director, Producer, Writer, Photography, Editor

Main image of Whitehead, Peter (1937- )

Although unquestionably one of the most remarkable maverick British filmmakers of the 1960s, Peter Whitehead's impact on British film culture is often underestimated. Given the mercurial character of his career, in some respects this is unsurprising. Like the man, his work defies easy categorisation, and his films are not widely distributed. Consequently they are rarely seen. Paradoxically, much of his iconic documentation has surreptitiously disseminated the myths of the 1960s: footage from his films regularly turns up in television documentaries on Britain in the period.

An exceptionally bright and gifted lad born to working-class parents in Liverpool, the young Whitehead benefited from postwar educational reforms and won a scholarship to Cambridge University to study science. He later became one of the first students in the newly opened film studies department (Britain's first) at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, headed by film director Thorold Dickinson.

After the Slade, in early June 1965 he filmed a gathering of 'Beat' poets, including Allen Ginsberg, at an unexpectedly packed Albert Hall. The event confirmed the arrival of an alternative to mainstream youth culture in this country, later known as the hippy movement. Meanwhile the film, Wholly Communion (1965), successfully captured the excitement of the event and attracted much attention to Whitehead as the leading British practitioner of the then new experimental documentary style: 'direct cinema'. The following year it won the Gold Medal at the Mannheim film festival in Germany.

The success of Wholly Communion led him into a career of filming performances, both on stage and in the streets. A film of the Rolling Stones' 1965 tour of Ireland, Charlie is My Darling, sprung him into a career making pop culture films, culminating in his most successful and widely known film, Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967). A 'pop concerto for film' that spoke to a cross-section of Swinging London's most seminal faces - Michael Caine, Julie Christie, David Hockney - with a psychedelic Pink Floyd soundtrack, it remains a definitive document of the English Summer of Love.

Tonite's transatlantic sequel was filmed on location in New York. To capture what was in the air in that city, however, he entered much darker territory as he chronicled assassination, race riots and students protesting the Vietnam War. Cut with an unsettling, fragmented editing style, The Fall (1968) impacted on his mental state, culminating in nervous exhaustion and an eventual abandonment of filmmaking at the peak of his talents. Instead he embraced an exotic new life in the Middle East, trapping and breeding rare falcons for Saudi Arabian royalty.

The outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991 compelled Whitehead to return to England. In 1996, while making The Falconer with Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit (a film for Channel 4, which Whitehead publicly rejected), he suffered a massive heart-attack and went through a near-death-experience. He survived and today continues working in his latest incarnation, as a novelist.

Stuart Heaney

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Benefit of the Doubt (1967)Benefit of the Doubt (1967)

Peter Whitehead's film of Peter Brook's anti-Vietnam stage production 'US'

Thumbnail image of Fall, The (1969)Fall, The (1969)

Ambitious exploration of political tensions in late 60s New York

Thumbnail image of Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (1967)

Vivid, memorable doc examining the 'swinging' London phenomenon

Thumbnail image of Wholly Communion (1965)Wholly Communion (1965)

A record of a landmark Royal Albert Hall poetry reading

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